Educational press-reports-2005 show this as a year when it became increasingly clear that the New Labour government had little understanding of education as perceived by teachers, but a great vision of it as a political arena for catching votes.
Professional judgement on the best ways to educate our children and research evidence that challenged the wisdom of particular government interventions were swept aside.
Ruth Kelly, who succeeded Charles Clarke as secretary of state said, in support of her insistence that GCSEs and A-levels were here to stay, The education world can sometimes cloud the debate and give the wrong impression.
What teachers were looking for was compiled in a ‘manifesto’ by The Times Educational Supplement (TES) on the basis of responses from 1300 teachers on their wishes for pupils, for schools or colleges and for themselves. The Readers’ Manifesto was published early in April 2005 and these were its ten points, as reported by TES correspondent Joseph Lee:
Free children from the regime of testing and targets:
• Allow teachers to create an imaginative and engaging curriculum tailor-made for the pupils they teach;
• Reduce the number of tests, which erode enthusiasm for learning;
• Scrap league tables, which force schools to become exam factories and narrow their curricula.
Give schools the resources they deserve:
• Ensure no teacher has to work in dilapidated, over-crowded classrooms;
• Provide textbooks and computers for every child, laptops for every teacher and interactive whiteboards for every class that wants them;
• Reduce class sizes to allow teachers to spend more time with every student, and ensure the workforce agreement is funded and implemented in full.
Respect teachers as professionals:
• Ensure no teacher has to deal with violence, criminality or persistent disruption to classes;
• Cut paperwork and marking to give staff a reasonable work-life balance and offer pay that reflects the importance of the job;
• Stop the attack on teachers’ pensions and keep the retirement age at 60;
• Reduce the pace of change and end the overload of short-lived new initiatives.
When the White Paper Higher Standards, Better Schools for All was published in October 2005 it was clear that government and teachers inhabit different universes. Of the ten issues listed by teachers in the TES Manifesto only the need for support for teachers in maintaining discipline in schools was included in the White Paper. While the government talked of giving ‘freedom’ to all schools who become ‘Trust schools’ this amounted to freedom from local authorities in order to be able to determine teachers’ pay and to set admissions criteria for pupils. The latter caused nation-wide concern at the socially divisive effect this would have – and most of the public debate about the White Paper focused on this vital issue. But the need for freedom from obsessive inspection, testing, league tables, targets, and curriculum mandates was not mentioned.
The significance of a question sometimes lies not in its words but in the identity of the questioner. So it is noteworthy that in July 2005, David Hopkins, a professor at Nottingham University, who had just completed three years as chief adviser on school standards at the Department for Education and Skills, asked: Why can’t every school be a great school? He argued that large-scale reform must come from a combination of school-led and national initiatives. Pity he hadn’t said this three years earlier – or perhaps he did but nobody listened!
Peter Hyman was the man who coined the phrase bog-standard comprehensive when he was a speech writer for Tony Blair and head of Downing Street’s strategic communications unit. Subsequently he worked for a year as a teaching assistant and wrote a book on his experiences entitled 1 out of 10: From Downing Street Vision to Classroom Reality. As the TES reported in February 2005, he calls on his old government colleagues to stop trying to micro-manage schools, and asks: Why can’t politicians acknowledge that those on the front line might know more?
CONCERNS ABOUT OFSTED IN 2005
In March 2005 the chief inspector, David Bell, announced that as part of the new regime of streamlined inspections at short notice, from September 2005 inspectors would include with their report a letter for the pupils. An example from a trial was quoted in the TES.
Thank you for letting us come and visit your school ... Your headteacher runs the school very well. ... What we have asked your school to do now: Give you even more exciting work to do in subjects like art, history, geography, and dance. Make sure that all of you understand the comments your teacher has written in your books and use them to improve your work ... Yours sincerely, The HMI Inspection team.
David Hart, shortly to retire as general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: I think the chief inspector has gone off the rails. It is a totally unacceptable way forward.
By November 2005 examples of adverse comments in such letters were published in the TES. One said: We do not think your teachers set you challenging enough work, and when this happens you do not learn as much as you could. This was described by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers as unhelpful and unprofessional and likely to be thrown back in teachers’ faces by pupils, undermining their authority. Another inspectors’ letter said: We have told your teachers they must try harder. ... Some lessons don’t work and are too easy. This was revealed in the TES by a governor of the infant school, who said: This school [which failed its Ofsted inspection] already has serious problems including disruptive children and uninterested parents. Comments such as these only give them grounds to undermine staff rather than work with them.
In December 2005, the TES asked Mick Brookes, the new general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, what would be top of his list if education secretary Ruth Kelly turned Christmas fairy and offered him three wishes. His first was: The inspection system is punitive, not helpful. So I’d ask for a change in the culture of inspection so it could be welcomed by heads as a positive, professional contribution to school improvement. He went on to say that the recruitment problem among heads will not be solved while the government says if a school goes into special measures the head will be sacked.
The pressure on headteachers was an issue that made the TES front page headline Heads forced to quit on 9 September 2005. The article reported that hundreds of headteachers are being driven out of the profession by Ofsted [but] many cannot talk publicly because gagging clauses have been inserted in their contracts.
John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said: The Ofsted inspection framework has put enormous pressure on headteachers. The process should be about helping them to improve, not hanging them out to dry.
Earlier, in the build up to the General Election of May 2005, the TES reported that Lib Dems would axe Ofsted.
CONCERNS ABOUT TESTING IN 2005
Are tests really election winners? asked Diane Hofkins, TES primary editor, in February 2005. She wrote: Pandering to parents is one of the government’s strategies for winning votes in the forthcoming general election. ... There’s an assumption that holding firm on league tables and keeping pressure to raise Sat scores will keep voters happy. But is that necessarily true? It can be argued that scrapping Sats ... would win more parental approval than it would lose.
Perhaps it was this which led Ken Boston, head of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to speak out and call for the scrapping of ‘unworkable’ school tests. The Daily Telegraph reported his view that requiring all children of the same age to take the same tests on the same day then “moving millions of scripts physically around the country” so that they could be marked to a tight time scale by external examiners was unworkable. He added that it was unsatisfactory that the tests should determine (i) the outcome of pupils’ year’s work, (ii) the place of their school in league tables and (iii) the success or otherwise of their teachers.
Ofsted also spoke out against the relentless focus on tests and targets in its report English 2000-2005, blaming it for a decline in teachers reading stories and poems and children reading for pleasure.
Brushing aside these concerns the government remained committed to extensive testing of children. In a brash attempt to ensure that targets are achieved, in July 2005 it sent out hundreds of pages of detailed tips on how to ensure that pupils pass the national tests. But its agency, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority said that over-intensive coaching could be damaging pupils’ ability to think for themselves.
But the government had more problems than whether test targets are reached. Peter Tymms, professor of education at Durham University, claimed that the dramatic improvements recorded in key stage 2 reading and maths test scores in the late 1990s overstate the rise. His research indicated that standards of reading had scarcely risen since the mid-1990s and he thought such improvements as there had been were mainly due to better preparation for the tests. The independent Statistics Commission agreed with this position. Colin Richards, professor at St Martin’s College, Lancaster, similarly challenged the government’s figures, in a report showing that while there had been improvements in English, Maths and science between 1995 and 2001, these were not as great as the test scores implied.
An editorial in the TES on 26 August 2005, headed Tyranny of tests harms pupils, argued that while tests are a necessary part of a school system, putting them in high-stakes targets and league tables suggests that they have more importance and reliability than they deserve. Instead there is a powerful case for teacher assessment checked by some external tests, but ministers, looking nervously over their shoulders at the tabloid press, have not yet proved brave enough to agree. Again we see that decisions about schools are based on political expediency not educational logic.
In February 2005 John Dunford, general secretary, Secondary Heads Association, called our examination system a tragic waste of national resources when he revealed that the accountants PricewaterhouseCoopers had found the total cost of the school examination system in England to be around £700m a year. He noted that the total number of examination papers sat by young people each year in national curriculum tests at 7, 11 and 14, GCSE, AS and A2 examinations is over 30m. He added: No other country has external examinations at so many ages and many countries use teacher assessment as a major component of the grades of their major qualifications. ... So why don’t we cut the examination system by half and use teacher assessment for the other half of the marks?
Criticism of the English testing/league table system came also from an international report published in February 2005 by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. It said that pressure on schools to boost league-table performance risks undermining pupils’ learning and teachers often feel compelled to “teach to the test” at the expense of children’s long-term education.
CONCERNS ABOUT LEAGUE TABLES IN 2005
League tables came under fire from academics and teachers’ unions when several primary schools which had been judged by Ofsted as failing came near the top of the new value-added tables. Peter Tymms, professor of Durham University, commented: Something is wrong here, isn’t it? Either the league tables are wrong, or the inspection judgments are. Or both. In primaries the number of pupils taking tests is small, leaving the schools susceptible to large swings in results each year. It also means that detailed judgments on the quality of a school are hard to make.
While the value-added scores had initially been welcomed by many schools it soon became apparent that it is virtually impossible for schools where pupils do well at KS1 to show that they have improved at KS2. Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said that league tables have a pernicious effect on teaching and learning and John Dunford said: If the government is serious about using its education system to reduce inequalities in society, it should scrap league tables ... They accentuate differences between schools, concentrating problems in those serving disadvantaged areas.
Stephen Gorard, professor of Education at Cardiff University, gave research support to these contentions in June 2005 on the basis of a study of value-added scores of 124 secondary schools in Yorkshire, saying that Value-added tables are worse than pointless because their apparent precision may have misled analysts, observers and commentators. The size of this problem, for the local reputations of schools ... would be difficult to over-emphasise.
The General Teaching Council (this was set up by government but is independent. It has 530,000 registered teachers) also pressed the government to scrap league tables and pupil assessment in its current forms. Mori carried out a poll of parents on behalf of the GTC and found that many of them too are sceptical about the usefulness of exam league tables.
CONCERNS ABOUT CURRICULUM IN 2005
During the year various writers and teachers expressed concern about the national curriculum. Julian Baggini, editor of The Philosophical Magazine, wrote in the TES that with more freedom, the curriculum would not only work much better, but it would at last provide a coherent philosophical framework for compulsory education. He noted that all the key players in education, including the three main political parties, acknowledge that the curriculum is too restrictive. His concern was that those who have not learned to think for themselves have not really learned to think at all.
Mary Jane Drummond, of the faculty of education, University of Cambridge, put some flesh on this argument in a TES article in November 2005. She wrote that before the 1988 Education Reform Act by and large teachers did their own thinking about the curriculum. But soon after the arrival of the national curriculum documents - the first signs of professional amnesia appeared in our midst. Slowly but surely the teaching community began to act as if worthwhile knowledge were only to be found in ring-binders, swiftly supplemented by training packs with videos.
Geographers were concerned at an Ofsted report that their subject was the worst-taught subject in primary schools. David Lambert, chief executive of the Geographical Association, said: If the decline continues I think young people will be seriously impoverished. Geography brings the human and physical world together. In general it was clear that in many primary schools the teaching of the humanities suffered because of the focus on literacy and numeracy.
Phil Willis MP, a former head and education spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, said to their spring conference at Easter: Just how many times can our students be tested, our schools and colleges inspected and league tables produced before it has a negative effect on learning?
Perhaps this was why an opinion poll among teachers in April 2005 found their support for Labour had dropped from 43 per cent in 2001 to 29 per cent, for the Conservatives from 10 to 9 per cent, but had risen for the Liberal Democrats from 18 to 20 per cent.
For later press reports click on the buttons at the top of this page.
This page was last edited on 29 July 2009